A franchise off the national radar and struggling for scraps of attention in its own market. A franchise with five playoff appearances in 25 seasons and none back to back since 1996-97. A franchise whose fans have never known sustained winning.
This franchise, the Florida Panthers, has won the NHL offseason, a title whose only trophy is hope. This is an organization that has made its move, declared itself ready, and now -- with no excuses left -- must prove it can compete for the Stanley Cup. Not someday. Not maybe. Now.
In sports, first you must earn the burden of expectations, then you must prove you are worthy of them.
The Panthers have put themselves right in the middle of that. In a league that just saw the interloping, underdog St. Louis Blues unexpectedly raise the Cup, the Cats must got from no playoffs to a deep run in them, nothing less, when the games commence Oct. 3.
“I want to see it come together fast. I want to play games right now,” general manager Dale Tallon told us Friday. “The window is now and forever.”
Win now and keep winning. Think championships. Every team has that dream, but, in this pro market, the Panthers are better poised to do it right now than the Dolphins, Heat or Marlins.
That’s after a summer bookended by the hiring of accomplished championship coach Joel Quenneville and by this past week’s signing of top-tier Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky -- each a seismic, difference-making get for Tallon, and both acquisitions underlining the willingness to spend by club owner Vinnie Viola.
Quenneville, three-time Stanley Cup champ with Chicago in the 2010s, is simply the best coach the Cats have ever had. Significantly so.
Bobrovsky, the two-time Vezina Trophy winner coming from Columbus, replaces a Hall of Famer in retired Roberto Luongo -- and is an upgrade. Significantly so. “Bob” might be Florida’s single biggest player acquisition since Pavel Bure in January 1999. Bure was the “Russian Rocket.” Should Bobrovsky be the “Russian Stop-It”? (OK, maybe not...)
Missing out on top free-agent wing Artemi Panarin is all that kept Florida’s offseason from being a full-out blockbuster.
“The glamour move would have been Panarin with the goaltender,” Tallon admits. “But we needed to address some of our other needs as well.”
That led the Panthers to withdraw from the Panarain bidding war with the New York Rangers and instead sign three other free agents in starter-caliber defenseman Anton Stralman from Tampa Bay; a wing coming off his best scoring season (22-24-46) in Brett Connolly from Washington; and a steady center for depth in Noel Acciari.
It is not by coincidence that all four incoming free agents are accustomed to winning. Stralman, Connolly and Acciari’s former teams had the top three most points in the league last season. Bobrovsky also made the playofs, and advanced in them.
Those four join an existing core group of talent led by Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, incent Trocheck, Mike Matheson and Keith Yandle.
“These [new] guys are winners and they ‘re here to take care of business,” said Ekblad. “That winning mentality is huge., It allows us to come into every game with that swagger that we can win.”
That starts with Bobrovsky, whose facemask art depicts, appropriately, a wall.
“It really wasn’t a hard decision for,” says Bobrovsky, in a thick Russian accent that turns the word happy into heppy. “With the great coach, the great management, the great group of guys, I think we can make something special.”
He refers to goaltending as “my art.” I like that.
Florida bestow a seven-year, $70 million deal to get him. Risky for a goalie almost 31?
“I feel I am entering my prime,” Bobrovsky says. “I appreciate the trust. I’m looking forward to prove them right.”
Tallon, with the Cats since 2010, knows that sustained winning is the first essential step in a broader, bigger battle. The Panthers must win on the ice to starting winning over the market.
The Panthers’ tough spot on the South Florida sports landscape was underlined this summer.
The team’s splashy offseason was predictably overshadowed by the Miami Heat, supposedly headed for a quiet summer, swinging a trade for star Jimmy Butler, after making headlines by drafting Tyler Herro. Nationally, the Women’s World Cup and the U.S. team’s run to the championship game jousted with star-swapping NBA free agency for the most noise.
(If these are the dog days of summer, those dogs are barking pretty good. In sports, there is no offseason, no real dead spots on the calendar anymore).
The Panthers’ offseason is no less notable for the relative lack of attention, but it reminds the Cats have a lot of climbing to do in a market where the Dolphins, Heat and Hurricanes football reign, leaving the Marlins, hockey and soon Inter Miami soccer fighting for broad relevance beyond their hard-core audience.
Tallon likens it to what he inherited while in the Chicago Blackhawks front office.
“I went through it. With the Cubs, Bears and Bulls, even the White Sox -- everyone was ahead of us, and then it turned,” he said. “I think we’ve started that process now here. Getting the best coach, the best goaltender, spending to the cap. Now we need sustained success. We gotta win.”
Best coach, premier goalie, big spending, blossoming depth, strong additions to an existing, artfully developed core.
All of these equal high hopes, and one other thing:
No excuses left, Cats. Time to win.